North Carolina defense lawyers are using a local death penalty study that mirrors the racial disparities highlighted in national analyses to try and keep their client from being prosecuted in a capital case, reports the Raleigh News & Observer. An analysis of 177 murder cases over five years shows that prosecutors are six times more likely in Durham, one of the most diverse counties in the state, to seek capital punishment when a black suspect has been accused of killing a white person compared with when the victim is black. Attorneys Jay Ferguson and Lisa Williams plan to use the analysis in their defense of Keith Kidwell, a 24-year-old black man who has spent the past four years in jail awaiting trial on charges that he murdered Crayton Nelms, a white convenience store clerk found beaten to death at work.
The analysis was conducted by Isaac Unah, a political scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill. Of the 177 murder suspects indicted by a Durham County grand jury between 2003 and 2007, 50 could not be prosecuted as death penalty cases because the defendants were too young. Of the 127 other cases, only 20 were ever capital cases. None of those went to jury as a death penalty case because prosecutors often use the threat of capital punishment in bargaining for pleas. James Coleman, a Duke University law professor who worked on the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, said that the conclusions coincide with centuries-old patterns. “That goes back to the Civil War times,” he said. “Prosecutors always sought the heaviest punishment for the black defendant when the victim was white. Those patterns have continued.”